OREGON — A community college student newspaper staff fears its funding will be cut because of an investigative series on student government corruption.
Central Oregon Community College’s student government met Friday to amend the way student fees are used to support the paper, after The Broadside ran several articles detailing the misuse of student money at the hands of student government employees.
“The process on how the funding is done is going to be changed,” Broadside Editor-in-Chief Eric Ercanbrack said.
One of the articles claims student government publicist Brenda Pierce’s boyfriend made over $19,000 in student fee money for maintaining a Facebook page — over twice what any member of the actual student government made. A second story alleges that Pierce maintained her post as publicist despite having dropped so many classes that she was no longer considered a COCC student. Pierce later re-enrolled.
Some students are now pushing for a recall of the entire student government administration.
The Friday meeting was requested by a group of students led by one of the student government employee’s girlfriends, Ercanbrack said. The group told student government they were unhappy with The Broadside’s editorial content and did not want their fees going toward it. Student government officials responded that their fees did not have to go toward the paper, according to Ercanbrack, and that student government would do what it could to make that use of fees optional.
Student Press Law Center attorney Mike Hiestand said there is substantial legal evidence that the published material is motivating the actions.
The dispute began in September when The Broadside was denied several student government documents, including an overall budget. Ercanbrack said he was denied on the grounds of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects certain student records. He said student government employees told him the organization is a non-profit group, not a public entity.
“We’re trying to get these documents because we have received word from people who used to work for student government, as well as documents that we have to double check to make sure their validity and accuracy,” Ercanbrack said.
The Broadside went to the college administration for help — gaining credit card statements and payroll information — but the remaining documents, including actual receipts and details of a recent student government trip, were withheld. According to COCC President James Middleton, the remaining documents were not available.
“What they did give us was sort of an overview, and we don’t know what exactly they spent this money on,” Ercanbrack said.
Ercanbrack was forced to go outside the school. After the local district attorney was contacted, the student government turned over the documents.
Ercanbrack said the conflict is only one in a history of a strained relationship. He said the newspaper has been denied records about fifteen times in the past year.
“The student government is trying to define themselves in relation to the college, because right now it doesn’t know if it has to follow college policy,” Ercanbrack said. “They think they don’t even have to follow public meeting law or follow public records law, which is the largest delay.”
Hiestand said the COCC student government became subject to open records law when it took over the student fees.
“The law is clear that when student government officials take on a role that is normally carried out by a public body, such as the school itself, they are going to be subject to the same rules,” he said. “Neither school officials nor student government officials can use the power of the purse as a means of censoring student media.”
Ercanbrack said past requests were denied because they were unspecific or would require a large fee. The newspaper staff chose not to pursue those because it didn’t want to “get overly involved.”
Members of The Broadside were not able to speak at the Friday meeting because of a time stipulation — they did not request permission to speak far enough in advance since the meeting was scheduled at the last minute.
Ercanbrack said he fears all funding for The Broadside could be cut, in direct retaliation for the recent stories.
Dustin Moore, COCC student government finance coordinator, said he transferred money into The Broadside account Friday and doubts the funding will end soon. He referred additional questions to Pierce, who did not return multiple calls.
“The truth is student government hasn’t been very fair with people,” Moore said. “At least not with The Broadside.”